Louisiana Court of Appeal Clarifies Application of Punitive Damage Award

In the Parish of Acadia, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal decided a case that clarifies how punitive damage awards are to be applied to vicarious liability cases. In Bonnie Romero v. Clarendon America, Bonnie Romero (plaintiff) was hit by an 18 wheeler truck. The truck was driven by an employee of Stanford Trucking (Stanford). In their filing, the plaintiff argues that the truck was being driven within the scope of the truck driver’s employment. Plaintiff also alleges that the driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident. Stanford asked the driver to submit to a drug and alcohol test following the accident. The driver refused to submit to the test and was subsequently fired. Plaintiff filed for summary judgment asking the court to award punitive damages against Stanford because it was vicariously liable for the driver’s actions. Plaintiff also filed a motion to compel Stanford to submit to requests for discovery. Stanford cross-filed for summary judgment stating that it was not vicariously liable for punitive damages as a matter of law. The trial court granted Stanford’s summary judgment and denied both of plaintiff’s motions.

The Court started its discussion by stating that in Louisiana there is a strong public policy against punitive damages. Thus, in order for an award for punitive damages, the right must be clearly signified in a statute. Even if a statute created a right for punitive damages, it would be strictly construed by a court. As such, it is a matter of how Louisiana statutes are worded in order to determine whether a right for punitive damages exists in a vicarious liability case. Louisiana Civil Code Article 2315.4 states in pertinent part,

exemplary damages may be awarded upon proof that injuries on which the action is based were caused by wanton or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others by a defendant whose intoxication while operating a motor vehicle was a cause in fact of the resulting injuries.

Thus, this statute makes clear that when the driver of a vehicle causes an accident due to the driver’s intoxication, a right of punitive damages may exist. At this juncture, it is essential to discuss the motives and policy behind punitive damages. Compensatory damages exist to make a person whole. Whether the damages are for injuries, lost wages, mental distress, or any other such variety, the ultimate purpose is to place the person who is injured in the position they would be in if that accident did not happen. The purpose of the punitive damage award, on the other hand, is to punish the person liable for the accident. In cases where the action of the liable party are egregious, or in the case of Article 2315.4 “wanton or reckless”, the judicial system steps in to make the person whole, and punish the liable party to discourage such action in the future.

Louisiana Civil Code Article 2320 covers vicarious liability, and states in pertinent part, “In the above cases, responsibility only attaches when the masters or employers, teachers, or artisans might have prevented the act which caused the damage, and have not done it.” Plaintiff never alleged either that Stanford was the cause of driver’s intoxication, or that Stanford could have prevented the driver’s intoxication, but did not do so. In fact, the facts of the case showed that after the accident occurred, Stanford required the driver to submit to a drug and alcohol test, and after the driver refused, he was terminated. The Court referred to a string of cases that held that those who supplied alcohol to drivers who subsequently were involved in automobile accidents were not held liable for punitive damages. The reason was that as Article 2315.4 clearly states, it is the driver of the vehicle who is liable for punitive damages because of the choice of driving while intoxicated. No statute clearly states that the provider of alcohol is vicariously liable for punitive damages, or that an employer can be liable based on the facts of the case. Thus, based on Louisiana’s stated policy against punitive damages, Stanford was not held liable for punitive damages in this case.

It is not always clear what rights and claims a plaintiff may have after an accident. Sometimes the law is not so clearly set out that immediate determinations can be made regarding what a plaintiff should expect out of litigation. On many occasions it may take litigation to discover that a plaintiff has more or less claims than originally thought. Legal advice can make the journey after any accident easier to encounter. Solid and competent legal advice can help protect plaintiff rights and enlighten plaintiffs on what types of damages they may attain.

Call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 to discuss any potential claim you may have.